Friday, 15 April 2022

Prison Hulks

Transportation to America ended with the American War of Independence. This resulted in additional overcrowding of English prisons so a new solution needed to be put in place. In 1776 the Criminal Law Act (the Hulk Act) was passed allowing for prisoners to be housed in old ships, initially on the Thames at Woolwich. The convicts would be put to work to work on projects for the benefit of the navigation of the Thames.

Duncan Campbell was given permission to initially use two of his ships, the Justitia and the Censor to house the first prisoners. The Justitia, former convict ship, was the first ship used and when it was full the Censor also became a prison hulk. George Guest was transferred from Gloucester Gaol to the Censor to await transportation to Australia.

Initially there was little government supervision of the hulks.Campbell employed deputies and overseers to patrol the decks of the hulks and guard the prisoners. Food was scarce and of poor quality. This was a deliberate ploy as it was considered inappropriate that the prisoners appeared to be better treated than free people living in poverty. Conditions on the hulks were crowded and dirty. There was poor sanitation and diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhus spread quickly. There was a high death rate on the hulks.

Image from Royal Museums Greenwich

The convicts on the hulks at Woolwich worked in chain gangs on projects relating to the Thames either in the dock yards or on the river banks. One of the tasks was to remove gravel and excess soil from the banks of the river.

The number of hulks increased and eventually were located at Deptford, Chatham, Gosport, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheerness and Cork as well as Woolwich. Duncan Campbell's contract to maintain his hulks was not renewed in 1802, but the hulk system continued until 1857. 

Fortunately George Guest remained on the hulk, Censor, only until February 1787 when he was transferred to the convict ship, Alexander, part of the First Fleet that arrived in New South Wales in January 1788.

Useful websites:

Duncan Campbell: the private contractor and the prison hulk - British Library Untold Lives blog

Convict hulks - Sydney Living Museum  

Convict hulks - The Digital Panopticon

Prison hulks - Royal Arsenal History

Prison hulks ( research guide) - National Library of Australia

Prisons & hulks (resources) - State Library of New South Wales

Thursday, 14 April 2022

The Old Gloucester Gaol

[Gloucester Castle keep: the old county gaol. Based on an 1819 work, from W. Andrew, ‘Old English Towns’, published 1909. Via Wikimedia Commons - Gloucester Crime History blog]

Brief history of the old gaol

The first gaol in Gloucester was in part of Gloucester Castle. The castle had been constructed early in the 12th century and part of it was in use as a gaol by 1185.

During the 17th century most of the castle was demolished but in 1672 the Sheriff of Gloucestershire insisted that the keep should be kept as the County Gaol.

By the late 18th century when George was a prisoner in the gaol, the building had become overcrowded and was in desperate need of repair. Some repairs were made between 1780 and 1782. The building was even fumigated in 1874.

In 1783 The Sheriff of Gloucestershire visited the gaol at the former castle keep and  recommended the building of a new gaol.

In 1784 an act was passed in parliament to make changes to the prison system including providing county magistrates the power to build their own prisons. William Blackburn drew up the plans for the new prison at Gloucester.

When plans for the new gaol were approved in 1785 the new building was to hold 207 prisoners.

In 1791 the first prisoners were transferred to the new building.

When George Guest (Gess) was an inmate of the prison between 1783 and 1786 the prison buildings were dilapidated and conditions for the prisoners were overcrowded, cramped, filthy, unhygienic and cold.  The prisoners had straw for beds which was rarely replaced. Food usually consisted of stale bread and pottage - a form of vegetable soup or stew which, on occasion, may contain small pieces of meat. 

There was one open sewer for the entire prison. Fleas, mites, lice and rats frequented the gaol. Disease was common in the gaol including typhus, also known as gaol fever. 

During the day the prisoners were usually put to work breaking rocks, picking oakum, beating flax or spinning yarn, making nails, mouse and rat traps, stools or garden tools. Groups of seven prisoners at a time could work the treadmill to grind corn and other cereals.

When considered necessary by gaolers, prisoners could be made to wear fetters and chains.

When the new prison opened in 1791 it was designed to hold 207 prisoners with separate sections for men and women. It also had exercise yards and a chapel. The prison was now under the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions.  Prisoners were now issued with prison clothes and even soap. The quality and quantity of food improved. Prisoners were also grouped according to their sentence rather than everyone being together. However by this time George Guest was in Australia.

Useful websites:

History of 1792 Old Gloucester Gaol - City and Country website

Gloucester Crime History - Prisons - blog (Jill Evans)

Conditions in Gloucester prisons - Gloucester Archives (article- pdf)